Broadband Access in Alameda County

The digital divide is a very real and very stable reality in communities like Oakland, California.  Knowing which neighborhoods have solid access to high speed internet is a critical aspect of planning for government and nonprofit provided online services- if we want low income folks from Oakland’s flatlands to use a new digital application, we’d damn sure better know how many households in the target areas likely have decent speed internet hookups at home!  Luckily for us the FCC collects reliable data on this and they publish it freely at a local level

Do yourself  a favor and view the fullscreen version:

I took the raw tract level data and joined it to census tracts in QGIS, calculated a new string field called “res_fhsc_per_1000hhs” and calculated the real rate values to display in the map legend and popup- the raw data contains coded values that correspond to real numbers- so 5 means a rate of 800-1,000 per 1,000 households. The GeoJSON file was then loaded into a CartoDB mapping system. 

As with most social phenomena, Oakland’s east and western flatlands stand out as parts of the county with quite low home broadband. Those communities may have internet via very slow services that many modern web sites won’t run well over (these data include all services providing over 200kbps – try using the web on a 256k plan in 2014!).  The data are for 2010 Census tracts and were last collected and published for December 2012. Many households will have improved access since then and we also know from Pew research that many minority communities use mobile devices as a primary means of internet access.

We have a winner: Alameda County first to launch OpenData!

On top of a great week for data- with the city moving it’s opendata plans forward and a packed event for our first OakX series on the Data Driven City you would think that was enough data related news right? Wrong.

Alameda County has released it’s new OpenData platform in beta version in advance of our CodeforOakland hackathon on the 21st! Presenting:

Yep, first Californian county outside of San Francisco to roll out an opendata platform! (Tell me if this is wrong please!) This is the result of many people. We began advocating for publicly available, open data last year and county board supervisor (and board pres) Nate Miley really championed this idea. Kieth Carson and Wilma Chan also have pushed for it. This year the administrator’s office got on board heavily and worked with the ITD folks to plan this effort with some support and guidance from my team here and there. So if you’re in a city or county with no such data resource this is proof that it can happen from an outside source- it just has to make sense to the government staff and leaders to happen- and yes that’s easier said than done!

This initial release is a preview essentially, layout changes and more data are on the way. It’s a Socrata based platform and the key part of that seems to be the turnkey appeal- most counties don’t seem to have the skills or interest in standing up something like CKAN which is perhaps a shame.

The most interesting new data being released from my perspective are the:

I’m looking forward to what local developers, analyst and researchers can start to create and learn with this new wealth of data! Props to Tim Dupuis, Tobin Broadhurst and Theresa Rude for their work on this!

Some playing:

And coming from behind: Alameda County to adopt OpenData!

Some days you get pleasant surprises. Some days bureaucrats really do get stuff done. Some days government staff really do agree and align their efforts with those of the elected leaders who typically just butt heads with those they lead. Yesterday was one of those days.

Alameda County is going to be adopting an opendata platform this year, with either a live portal or an alpha version for internal review by the board of supervisors retreat in September. Just like that. Well, not quite that easy. Late last year we were part of a new committee setup by Supervisor Nate Miley to examine ways to integrate data between agencies and after some initial discussions we pushed the group to consider the value of making much of these data available to the public. We delivered a few demos on our web mapping and data tools and developed some materials showing the benefits, principles and reasons for opendata in governement. As with the City of Oakland I drafted a policy piece, some guidelines on how to select data within each department and a guide to implementing opendata across the county. Couple meetings happen, then nothing, silencio.

But during the silence the county was actually doing something constructive. Albeit choosing a vendor (some things don’t change), one with a heavy monopoly, but still making a good decision for the county. Alameda County will be rolling out a Socrata portal.  Now I do like their tools, they make an excellent product, I’m just saddened to see a steady monopoly in a space that is all about openness, opensource and innovation. Personal grievance aside, this is GREAT!

There is now some real momentum to this working committee to make something happen. Socrata got the nod because it’s just so damn easy, turnkey and all that. I can’t disagree, it really lowers the barrier to entry for agencies without the opensource chops to stand up a CKAN instance, sadly, and that will likely be the same scenario in most US cities I’m guessing, although it will be interesting to see just what Junar can come up with.

There’s a lot of work to do, many agencies have reservations, many have piss-poor data ecosystems and this seems threatening, but there is some exciting progress, including the sheriff agreeing to publish their data in a usable format for the first time publicly. Did you know that Alameda’s sheriff published block level (hmm) crime data to for the past year? I didn’t, not that it matters much when you only publish government data into one closed, average system.

Our next step is to work through some issues that we’ve discovered within the county systems in the course of our work- serious data deficiencies that only a small does of modernizing would yield some serious gains. We’re also hoping to get a couple of new data sets released in time for the next #CodeforOakland hackathon on July 21st. I’ll also be curious to see if a larger urban county can help to pull up some of the smaller cities in it’s coverage to use their same data platform.

What is surprising is that despite their being serious approval of this effort at an elected leader level there isn’t a desire to formalize this effort in legislation, policy or directive. I suggested that this rare circumstance of staff and leaders wanting the same thing is the perfect opportunity to get supporting legislation or directives in place- partly to sustain it beyond the current champions and also to really leverage these good efforts. It’s really wonderful to see county staff and leaders working in the same direction- it’s not as common as you may think. Once again technology and data are really capable of bringing about cultural and functional changes beyond their seemingly innocuous scope of impact. Geeks unite, open government is creeping forward.

How to (not) support new business in Oakland

There’s a lot of excitement in Oaktown lately, lots of amazing national press coverage about how amazing our town is, how great and diverse the food and culture is, the art and music scene and the bustling new venues to enjoy. People in city hall and various chambers are talking about new business opportunities here and are optimistic about the chances for a real retail and commerce boost to this wonderful but struggling city. I’ve been chatting with people about the ways to enable and encourage new business start-ups, in both the tech and regular retail/commerce world, lots of folks are positive about spaces being leased and used from Jack London to Uptown. Then I ran across a hackathon (that is sadly fully booked, say what?) with a focus on building opportunities for commonly disenfranchised and discouraged communities to help establish new businesses in their communities, very cool TED. And I started thinking about how a new entrepreneur goes about finding the space for their new business in San Francisco, and conversely how they would do the same in Oakland. Profound differences.

In SF you quickly stumble upon the official SF Prospector, an online tool that is old and clunky from a UI point of view but never the less allowed me to pick some square footage requirements, select an area of interest, a leasing rate and some other sensible variables and then to automate the process of finding possibly suitable sites. For my theoretical new photography studio I found a good location, that happened (by pure luck I’m sure) to be on a block with several other photographic studios close by, so fortunate locality with related traffic in the area, awesome.

But if I wanted my new site to be in sunny Oakland, to establish my new business in this side of the bay? Good luck. Leg work, connections, various real estate and small business sites with no real info and no leads. Nada from the city or the county. So we have a new dream team of the city administrator Deanna Santana, well reputed deputies in Scott Johnson and Fred Blackwell and zero ability for new business owners or expanding ones to find possible new locations quickly and online and at no cost. I was really stunned, nothing official, nothing to make the path smooth to help business locate in our town. WTF.

We recently soft launched as a web mapping and data viz tool to allow people to combine public data from multiple city and county agencies, all in one place, to promote data driven decision making and real, informed planning decisions. We aimed at our main partners in the CBO community, organizers and policy makers needing better access to data. But it may be that we need to load in all our countywide property data, connect up the foreclosure filings (which are privately held and sold by the way, or scraped…) and wait till the city releases all the current business permit data and vacancy info so we can just build this ourselves. The technology is no longer a real barrier, building interactive, responsive, usable tools to support our community should be a no-brainer for our governments, but it seems very slow in coming in the east bay. Technology is an enabler, but only if you choose to use it that way.

PS If you do know of a web based tool that does help businesses plan and launch in Oakland PLEASE let me know, I’d be happy to eat my words and let people know that it is actually possible!

Coding Across America (and Oakland!)

Code Across America: A Week of Civic Innovation

From February 24 through March 4, passionate citizens around the country will come together to “Code Across America” – to make their cities even better. In over a dozen cities, there will be hackathons to build civic apps, “brigades” to deploy existing ones, unconferences to plan for the year ahead, and meetups to strengthen the community. Check out details of what’s going on and where it’s happening below.


When: Simultaneous event, February 25; Ongoing, February 24 – March 4
What: Activities ranging from hackathons and app deployments to unconference sessions
Who: Urbanists, Civic Hackers, City Reps, Developers, Designers, etc — anyone with the passion to make their city better
How: Bring together the city government with a supporting community group, organization, or business, and reach out to a broad range of participants with diverse backgrounds and skills



If you’re an Oakland based coder, developer, designer, journo, researcher and you want to help build the first Oakland OpenData portal then please join us next weekend (Feb 25th @10am).  We are partnering with the alpha event of the Code for America Brigade for the first Code Across America day and will spend the day laying out the plans for this new resource for Oaktown.

We want your ideas, feedback, critique, concepts and creative spirit to help us make this work for everyone in Oakland. In mid/late March we will host a hack day in Oakland to do the dev work and get the site up and running, but the planning phase is just as important. We want to brainstorm with you on how we deal with the City/County split, which system we adopt- either the OpenDataPhily or the CKAN system, how it’s hosted and who will contribute to maintaining it, branding and promotion and more. We don’t want to do this in isolation so here’s your chance to help make this happen and to make sure your voice is heard.

More on the OpenData planning effort here.


We’re going to start lifting up what Oakland is really about- great art and culture! Too much bad press gets a brother down, so let’s put our heads together and build something dope for our town that will elevate our profile beyond crime and out-of control protests. Art. Art and tech. We are the creative town, so let’s make it known.

The previous year’s fellows at Code for America built a great little app called the Public Art Mapper– it lets you snap pics and upload locations of any public art in your town, then visitors, friends, tourists can find the great art in our town via a smartphone app, on twitter and even check in to the locations and discuss each spot using Foursquare. The app has already been rolled out in SF, Portland and Philadelphia.

More details on this effort here.


What’s a “Brigade” event? This year, Code for America is launching the CfA Brigade to bring together groups of civic hackers in cities across the country, focused on customizing and deploying civic apps locally. These Brigade events will be the kick off: each city will identify an app to focus on, customizing it for their needs, standing it up, and getting it in the hands of users by the end of the day.

How do I participate? Find your city on the map above or the list to the right and join the event there. If you don’t see your city, then host your own event using our guide, and if you can’t make it happen on February 25, don’t worry, Code Across America events are happening all week long, February 24 – March 4. Contact us if you need some help or want more information.